ASTANA The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Kazakhstan signed an agreement on Thursday to locate the first internationally-controlled bank of low-enriched uranium in the ex-Soviet nation to ensure fuel supplies for power stations and prevent nuclear proliferation.
The storage facility, set to become fully operational in 2017, is intended to provide IAEA member states with confidence in a steady and predictable supply of fuel even if other routes are disrupted.
Advocates also see it as a way to dissuade countries from building enrichment facilities that might be misused to purify uranium to weapons-grade levels - an issue that bedeviled relations between Iran and the West for more than a decade.
The agreement on establishing the bank was signed by Yukiya Amano, director general of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov. The bank will be governed by Kazakhstan's laws but fully managed and operated by the IAEA.
"This IAEA fuel bank will enable and encourage peaceful uses of nuclear energy, while reducing the risks of proliferation and reducing the risks of catastrophic terrorism," former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn said in a speech after the signing in the Kazakh capital Astana.
Nunn is co-chairman and chief executive officer of Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-profit and non-partisan organization with a mission to assist the fulfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s goals.
NTI played a key role in establishing the fuel bank. One of NTI's supporters, U.S. billionaire investor Warren Buffett, contributed $50 million to "jumpstart" the project, Nunn said.
"I look forward to the time soon when the fuel bank will become an operational reality," Buffett said in a message read by Nunn.
"Please tell all the decision makers that I am a patient and long-term investor and I know that international agreements take a considerable amount of time. But please also tell them that I am 84 years old."
The IAEA estimates the cost of the bank at $150 million, which includes the procurement of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and its work for the first 10 years.
Amano said that in line with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear program, signed in July, the Islamic Republic might in the future offer part of its own LEU stocks for the bank. Inventory for the bank will be bought through open tenders, he said.
The bank will contain up to 90 metric tons of LEU, sufficient to run a 1,000 MWe (megawatt electric) light-water reactor, the IAEA said. Such a reactor can power a large city for three years, it said.
The bank will be located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in the northeastern industrial city of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The plant has handled and stored nuclear material, including LEU, safely and securely for more than 60 years, the IAEA said.
The storage facility will be located not far from Semipalatinsk where the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons, harming the health of locals and the environment.
By the time of its 1989 closure following growing popular protests, Semipalatinsk had held 30 surface, 88 atmospheric and 340 underground tests.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal, the world's fourth-largest at the time.
The mineral-rich Central Asian nation of 17.5 million is the world's largest uranium producer and holds more than 15 percent of global uranium reserves, second only to Australia. It has no nuclear power stations of its own.
(This version of the story corrects lead to say first 'internationally-controlled' bank, not world's first)
(Writing Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Toby Chopra)